The Trap: Selling Out to Stay Afloat in Winner-Take-All America by Daniel Brook

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Posted 2013-08-16

People PlacesBook Notes by John December

"In today's knowledge-based economy, it is clear that egalitarian policies that guarantee higher education, health care, and child care--the sorts of policies that release talented individuals from dependence on employers, spouses, and accident of birth--are in fact best for ensuring social mobility and unleashing creativity" (p. 222).

Daniel Brook's careful examination of the problems aspiring middle-class and upper-middle class people face in competing for scarce resources reveals an inherent problem in public policy: our structure for taxes and regulation (or lack thereof) create such high income variance that individual creativity, freedom, and mobility for the people below the top-most income bracket has become diminished. Brook's point is that our entire economy suffers when the most creative, entrepreneurial, and diligent people become slaves to "the golden handcuffs"--the need to take a high-paying job that doesn't fully tap their skills or passion--all because of soaring costs for high-quality housing, urbanism, childcare, and education. Brook's point has implications for urban areas in that he shows how the demand for safe, high-quality urban areas is not being met with supply. The result is that high-income people can bid up the prices of these scarce resources.

The high points of The Trap illustrate how false dichotomies frame public policy debates. The first part of the book examines the false choice of freedom versus equality. Brook shows how putting debates about individual rights, justice, or economic issues in these terms sets up false choices. Barry Goldwater's definition of freedom--the power to spend free of taxation and regulation (p. 14) is presented as antithetical to a concept of equality is in a zero-sum game with freedom (p. 95). Brook shows (pp. 94-97) how these assumptions lead to compromises--and that, over the past years, these compromises have involved buying into the idea that freedom from taxation and regulation is the ultimate goal of a healthy society. Indeed, even the idea that taxes and regulation could be considered good has become so ingrained in debates that this false dichotomy persists. Brook provides no clear solutions, but he present illustrations of people facing the outcome of these and other false choices in economic terms: "...the new inequality has rendered the standards of living of all but the wealthy so precarious that overwork has become the price of standing still on a moving treadmill." (p. 211).

While Brook makes an excellent case, it is based on his particular methodology and assumptions. On page xi, he describes his research method as "personal interviews with dozens of people." Brook shows considerable interview and writing skills, but he doesn't seem to get beyond his social context--east coast and west coast cities are presented as the "important" options for living without question, even the face of rising costs. Contrast this with Karlgaard's book, Life 2.0, in which flyover country is shown as a choice for living. Secondarily, "dozens of people" within the Yale graduate Brook's social circle don't make up even a representative sample even of elite classes (see The Clustered World (Weiss 2000)), for example, to see how elites exist in the flyover land between the coasts). I know that the definition of a "national trend" is what three friends of a New York Times reporter do, so I suppose I should be willing to accept the extended circle of a Yale graduate as representative of economic choices faced by many.

Brook's main accomplishment is showing how today, the ideal of Thomas Jefferson suffers:

"Only by enacting decent rules, Jefferson understood, can we create a society in which the vast majority of us--neither saint nor criminal, neither so good we will go above and beyond what the rules require nor so evil we will break whatever rules are set--can live decent lives." (p. 226).
It is this lack of middle ground that Brook illustrates in this book.

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2024-05-14 · John December · Terms ©